Monday, June 29, 2009

Afghan president accuses US-trained guards of killing police chief
President Hamid Karzai accused Afghan guards working for US coalition forces of killing a provincial police chief and at least four other security officers during a gun battle outside a government office.

In a harshly worded statement, Karzai demanded that coalition forces hand over the guards involved. But the governor of Kandahar later said that 41 US-trained private security guards had been disarmed and arrested by Afghan authorities.

The US military said it was not involved in shooting, calling it an "Afghan-on-Afghan incident". However, Karzai's statement suggested that the guards sought refuge in a US coalition base after the killings, and he "demanded that coalition forces prevent such incidents, which weaken the government".

The situation lays bare the often testy relations between Karzai and American officials. The president's accusations come as thousands of US marines and soldiers are deployed across southern Afghanistan, the Taliban's stronghold and a region where Karzai is seeking votes ahead of presidential elections on 20 August.

Gunfire broke out after Afghan forces moved into a heavily protected government complex in Kandahar and demanded the release of a man accused of forging documents, said Hafizullah Khaliqyar, Kandahar's district attorney. When the Afghan forces threatened to release the suspect by force, Khaliqyar called the provincial police chief, he said.

"When the police chief wanted to talk to these people there was some argument and the gun battle started," he said.

Among the officials killed were the provincial police chief, Matiullah Qati, and the province's criminal investigations director. Hours later, Karzai released a statement.

"President Hamid Karzai demanded that coalition forces hand over the private security individuals belonging to coalition forces responsible for the killing of Kandahar provincial security officials to the relevant security authorities of the Afghan government," the statement from the president's office said.

Later, the governor, Thoryalai Wesa, said 41 private guards had been disarmed and arrested and would be sent to Kabul for a military trial. The killing of Kandahar's top police officer is a blow to security efforts in a province from which Taliban leader Mullah Omar once ruled the country. US soldiers are to be deployed in Kandahar later this summer, part of a surge that will see the total number of US forces in the country brought to 68,000 – more than double the 32,000 troops here last year.

Support for Swat offensive remains strong

Two months into a military offensive against Taliban militants, public opinion is firmly behind the civilian government and the military and it shows no sign of wavering.

Investors in Pakistani stocks have been unnerved by the violence, which has included a string of suicide bombs in cities and attacks on the military across the north.

But investors and the Pakistani people in general wanted to see the offensive prosecuted to the end, and only then would their confidence be restored, said a stock broker.

‘It is absolutely necessary for the government to control and counter these terrorist elements and regain its writ to end the state of despondency among the people who had started to feel there was no one to protect them,’ said Asif Qureshi, director of Invisor Securities.

‘Let alone foreign investors, the success of this operation is essential for the restoration of confidence among local investors as well,’ he said.

The KSE-100 index has gained 23 per cent this year after losing 58.3 per cent in 2008. But the index is trading about 10 per cent lower than its peak of this year, partly because of security worries.

About 10,000 supporters of the Jamaat-e-Islami religious party rallied in Karachi on Sunday to protest against US involvement in the region.

But their opposition to the offensive and sympathy for the Taliban was well known and their protest did not signal a strengthening of the argument that Pakistan should not be fighting ‘America’s war’, an analyst said.

‘They’re finding it difficult to dominate the discourse as they have been doing for some time. They’re on the back foot,’ said Rashid Rehman, a former newspaper editor and analyst.

‘The other voices, the dissident voices, the voices who have been arguing for the last 30, 40 years that we’re heading down a suicide path, I think they’re getting stronger,’ he said.

‘It’s an existential threat now to the state. The army, which after all was the creator of this monster, itself has come round to this view,’ Rehman said.

‘It may be partly American pressure but it is certainly also an internal assessment that ‘yes, we’ve lost control of these guys and they’ve gone haywire, something has to be done’.’

The fighting has displaced about two million people and their suffering could incite public anger but despite that, many ordinary Pakistanis agree something has to be done.

‘Everybody wants this filth wiped out,’ said retired school principal Nighat Anis. ‘The operation must be carried on so that no one like Osama (bin Laden) could dare come here.’

‘They aren’t representative of the whole nation ... I don’t believe opinion will shift in the militants’ favour.’

Attacks Increase as Pakistan Military Pursues Top Militants

Taliban militants in northwestern Pakistan have ambushed a military convoy, killing six soldiers. Hours earlier, army helicopters and warplanes pounded suspected militant hideouts in the region, where leaders of the Pakistani Taliban, Baituallah Mehsud, is believed to be running terror camps.

Pakistani officials say heavily armed Taliban fighters ambushed a military convoy of several vehicles in the North Waziristan border region. The attack instantly killed several soldiers and the two sides exchanged fire for some time. But there are no details whether militants suffered losses.

The ambush took place hours after Pakistani aircraft and helicopter-gunship bombed two Taliban compounds in the neighboring South Waziristan tribal region. The air raids are said to have killed an unknown number of militants, but independent verification of these reports is not possible because of the remoteness of the rugged region that borders Afghanistan.

Pakistani authorities say the military strikes are part of the campaign to neutralize a militant threat before a major air and ground offensive is launched to eliminate Baituallah Mehsud, the fugitive commander of the Pakistani Taliban militants.

In another move to corner the militant leader and his top commanders, the Pakistani government published an announcement in leading newspapers offering a reward of more than $600,000 for information leading to Mehsud's capture or death. More than $900,000 are also offered for 10 of his allies.

The United States has already announced a $5-million reward for Mehsud. He is accused of harboring the al-Qaida network, whose fugitive leader Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding in the mountainous Pakistani region.

Critics like Mehmood Shah, a former security chief for the volatile Pakistani border region, say the policy of offering bounties has not worked. But he says the move is a strong indication the Pakistani government is making every effort to eliminate the terrorist forces.

"There is huge [head] money for Osama Bin Laden and it has not materialized," Shah said. "So I am sure it is just conveying a message. But the main thing would be the operation by the military, which should be conducted with lot of care and lot of determination."

The Pakistani military has won appreciation both at home and abroad, particularly from the United States for its ongoing anti-Taliban offensive in the northwestern Swat and neighboring districts.

Top officials claim the successful military operation has killed more than 1,600 militants and is nearing its end. But the government is also under fire for failing to kill or capture top Taliban leadership in the area.

The offensive began in late April and is said to have killed most of the militants. But it has also forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee the region and take refuge in other parts of Pakistan.

Taliban militants have responded to the offensive with suicide bombings in towns and cities and attacks on the military across the country, killing scores of people.

The latest violence occurs as the top U.S. commander for the region, General David Petraeus, arrived in Pakistan for talks with Pakistani officials.